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Censorship failing, bit by bit

This is a page from the original version of Pagan Vigil. There are some formatting differences. Originally published at

It makes you wonder what all those repressive nations are really afraid of, doesn't it?

As the internet enters its second decade as a mass medium, it's worth looking back at one of the old saws that was bandied around in the covered-wagon days, when Californian sages made gnomic pronouncements about the future and the rest of the world repeated them at dinner parties. "The net treats censorship as damage and routes around it." These are the words of John Gilmore, radical libertarian, Sun Microsystems employee number five and bona fide west-coast guru-gazillionaire, and for much of the last 10 years they've been repeated as part of the founding story of the internet, along with a gloss about the net's inception as a military communications network designed to withstand partial destruction by nuclear attack.

In a technical sense, Gilmore (who was talking to a Time magazine journalist in 1993) has been proved right. The internet has provided an efficient conduit for people to share all manner of information other people don't want them to, whether those people are government whistle-blowers, child pornographers, political dissidents, intellectual property pirates or terrorists. From the Drudge Report to beheading videos, censorship is being successfully circumvented around the globe. Looked on from the neutral standpoint adopted by network engineers, this is proof of a robust system. Ethical or political judgements about the content of the information flowing through the networks aren't relevant. It's all data. We should celebrate.

However, around the world, people have also discovered that, despite the abstractions of network architecture and the nostrums of boosters who predicted a "new economy" free of material constraints, the internet is also a physical thing, which has its existence on real telephone lines, internet service provider (ISP) routers, undersea fibre-optic lines and hard drives humming under tangible desks. And it's used by people sitting in real offices with real doors that can be broken down by all-too-real police if the information they're sharing contravenes local laws - and in some cases even if they don't, but some foreign power strong-arms their government, as happened in Sweden in May 2006, when US diplomats incited a police raid on an ISP hosting a popular file-sharing service called the Pirate Bay. The internet's ability to route round censorship has the character of an ideal rather than a reality, a theoretical property.

The article examines some Chinese censorship practices, you should probably read it just for that.

But I want to take a step back into fuzzy math and chaotic systems for just a moment here. In a distributed network, the channel distance isn't as important as the channel accuracy. If you shout out from the next street over but I can't make out what you said, that does me no good. But if you called me on your cell phone through the cell towers to the switching office and down the phone lines to my kitchen phone, the information is accurate even though it may have had to travel miles "out of the way" to get to me.

The next thing to remember is the connectivity. The web is the best modern example of this. Clicking on the word "Buick " takes you straight to the Buick web site. On the other hand, this "Dodge" link is miscoded (purposely in this case) and won't do what it says. And of course, there is nothing to stop you from searching on any word you run across, with or without a link. Often I run across interesting book titles in the web articles I read, and usually I take a quick break to look at Amazon and get some info about the book.

The third thing to remember is that even the absence of information is information. Say I gave you a puzzle in which all the blue pieces had been removed. You would still get a rough idea of the shape of anything blue in the puzzle. If we increase the granularity so that each puzzle piece was only one pixel, you would get a very good idea of the shape. If we got even more specific and removed just a specific shade of blue, the detail still goes up.

Likewise, you can't talk about communism without touching on capitalism, and that leads to all sorts of information about liberty and freedom.

Given time, people will find ways around any restrictions nations try to put on the internet. Information will flow. And in order to be accurate, it will have to be as detailed and as connected as possible.

Listen to that freedom ring.

Posted: Sat - March 31, 2007 at 05:21 AM

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